No one wants to be a broken record of "No, no, no" or "Don't do that!"-but it's often easy to slip into a cycle of negativity with our kids. Here's how to escape that cycle, practice positive reinforcement, and help build stronger self-esteem in our children.
I wanted to be one of those moms who cloak their child with positive reinforcement-not a scolder or a nagger. So what happened? I was in a communication rut with my six-year-old son. I was following the poor kid around with a chorus of no's and don'ts that would make Dr. Phil put Nanny 911 on my speed dial. Believe me—I've tried being a positive parent. I've tried using the tricks like framing requests into a positive (instead of saying "Don't leave your jacket on the floor!" saying instead "Please hang your jacket on the hook!"), and offering two "desirable choices" (like giving them the 'choice' of what to wear, when I've really chosen both outfits). This change in tenor lasts for a short time, and then I'm quickly swept back into the negativity. I needed to take this a step further. This time, I wanted to understand what my negativity was actually doing to my child, how it was shaping who he's becoming in his own right. Sure, every parent has his or her melting point, and patience isn't always at a prime, but what happens to our children when that becomes the norm?
What I learned from the experts was eye-opening, and sometimes painful. Bear in mind, this is not a treatise about taking the discipline out of parenting. "Discipline is often associated with
punishment," says Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline series. "But in reality, it's a firm but kind teaching philosophy where punishment doesn't even enter the picture." Nelsen, among other educators and psychologists I spoke to, have made me see how being a broken record of no has long-lasting effects, such as negatively impacting developing self-esteem. "Somewhere parents got the idea that they could make children 'do better' by making them feel worse," offers Nelsen. "Adults don't respond well to this negativity, so why would children?"
Each age and stage of our parenting journeys offer up their own unique challenges, and so I also asked experts to weigh in with tips specific to each stage. Some tricks were old chestnuts, such as waiting a few seconds before saying don't and no. "When we lean too hard on 'no,' our kids hear the noise of our words, but not the content. We begin to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher who just said 'Whaa whaa whaa,'" explains Heath Meeks, a psychotherapist in private practice. "In the long haul, saying no constantly does nothing but make parents feel ineffective and guilty."
The most comforting information I received, across the board, was that no matter what the age of our child, it's never too late to make positive changes in our parenting styles. "Children are very forgiving creatures by nature," reminds Nelsen. "But it may be time for us to collectively lower the expectations that we place upon our kids. We should invite them to fully participate in their lives, rather than try to control every little thing they do."
Why it's important to be positive: Babies are little scientists. It's their job to find out how the world works, even if it means conducting Newton gravity experiments with bowls of spaghetti. Obviously, these situations can be frustrating for parents, especially if the same scene is replayed 10 times a day. That said, getting frustrated with your baby sends a huge developmental message. "This is the age where trust versus distrust is first developing," says Nelson. "Because babies can't talk yet, they're sitting there absorbing the sense of your anxiety."
Negativity trap: Babies don't understand basic concepts yet, and it's easy to forget that. The seemingly annoying things that they can do, such as drop food onto the floor over and over again, are actually creating important pathways to the brain. Parents should make as much room for these experimentations as possible and turn them into teaching moments.
Alternatives for saying 'Don't!': Safety obviously comes first, and supervision for babies is key to keeping our tone in positive terrain: If you give them plastic cups to throw on the floor instead of a messy bowl of spaghetti, that's working with them. "Redirection and distraction are useful everyday tools to keep your babies away from situations that are both unsafe and frustrating for you," says Dr. Jenn Berman, M.D. therapist and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Children. "At this earliest age you can begin to tell babies what they can do instead of what they can't do."
Why it's important to be positive: Toddlers are becoming more aware of their place in the world. They are developing autonomy, and are determined to do things on their own. They're also copy cats, and their identity is directly linked to what you say to them. If we're always negative toward them, they're going to mimic and internalize that tone over a positive one.
Negativity trap: Toddlers need constant supervision. "Toddlers are movers and shakers," says Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. "Physically, they're the busiest they will ever be in their lives." It's natural for parents to lean on 'no' because they're scared for their kids' safety. "Save no for when you really need it, like if they're about to put scissors in light sockets, or run out into the street," Borba says.
A common parental complaint of toddlers is that they "Don't listen." According to Nelson, "A little defiance is healthy at this age. It means the toddler feels capable of doing things on his own. He's not going to give up!" Parents get stuck in the trap of always doing things for their toddlers, like getting them dressed, which of course they need help with. But making room to give our kids time to try things for themselves is critical in the long haul for developing healthy self-esteem.
Alternatives for saying 'Don't!': It's important to keep directions minimal for toddlers. "They don't need, or understand, a lecture about why it is a bad idea to throw the remote control at the cat," says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Toddler. "Keep it simple! If you say too much, they'll just tune you out," Brown says.
Try the "positive opposite technique," suggests Borba. Instead of saying "Don't pull the dog's hair so hard!" you can say "Soft hands!" This internalizes the moral message, too; you're giving them the reason why, instead of just telling them not to do it. Try to always keep requests short, sweet, and positively framed. Instead of saying "Don't run!," say "Walk!"
Why it's important to be positive: Preschoolers are also becoming more social beings. They're learning how their actions and feelings matter in the large scope of things. They're also conflicted between wanting to be big boys or girls and wanting to be babies. It's a great time to heap positive praise on them for the new things they're learning; not criticize them for not being a "big girl" or a "big boy," says Borba. Their self-image is kicking in big time, and they're starting to compare themselves to other children.
At about 4 years old, when children are growing naturally more independent, power struggles can also escalate. "At this age, you should ask your children a lot of questions to get them more involved in making everyday decisions," Nelsen advises. "Give them as much power as they can handle; the more involved they are in the household, the better."
Negativity trap: For many parents, power struggles with their preschoolers create a cycle that's hard to break. A parent will tell them to do something, like put shoes on, and they say they don't want to, or just ignore them. Parent becomes more frustrated, and negative; child responds negatively back to the parent. "If you want to avoid power struggles," says Nelson, "you need to quit trying to take all of their power." This sounds good, but how can a parent realistically put this idea into practice on a daily basis? "Ask them nicely. Help them. Put their shoes in front of them," offers Nelsen.
Preschoolers are little petri dishes of developing self-esteem, and it's critical to separate the behavior from the child at this phase. "Because children have huge language leaps here, our lectures tend to get longer, and the meaning of them can get lost," says Borba. "Children might hear longer lectures and internalize them as 'I'm not good' as opposed to 'that thing I did wasn't good.' So remember to label the action, and not the child.
Alternatives for saying 'Don't!': Preschoolers are a rules-based group. For them, everything is black and white. The concept of fairness is big, and they can be rigid around that idea. "Rules are neutral, they're simple, and they're clear," says Berman. "Choose the three most important rules of your house, hang them up somewhere, and review them with your child on a daily basis." Make them positive: Instead of saying, "Don't jump on the furniture" you can write "Sit on the furniture." Kids at this age aren't fully reading yet, so it can be powerful to take pictures of them doing something the right way and tape it to the rules. Then, if the rule is broken, you can say "Rule!" and over time they'll make the connection. You can also teach them now that rules in each house might be different, so if they're going to someone else's home for a playdate, they may need to follow different rules.
Why it's important to be positive: "School aged kids are developing their worldview; at this age, they're literally becoming pessimists or optimists," says Borba. Studies have shown that optimists are better learners and more resilient overall, so instilling a sense of positivity in your child can impact the way she experiences her entire education.
Negativity trap: Most parents have become set in a particular communication style with their children by the time the kids reach six or seven. "At this age, it's frankly easy to forget to be positive," says Borba. "When the kids were younger, we were so excited by their first everything. We'd jump up and down when they did x or y, and praise them till the cows came home. It's natural for this level of praise to erode away over time."
At this juncture, the negativity tables have been turned, and the children have learned to manipulate their parents. All of our whining that they've absorbed over time is being used on us now. If whining works, kids are going to whine until they get what they want.
"The problem with this," explains Borba, "is that whining moves into backtalk, which moves into disrespect, which eventually moves into the defiance we begin to see in late tweens and early teenagers."
Alternatives for saying 'Don't!': For "Yellow Behaviors," those annoying things that don't involve safety issues, the best approach is to ignore. "Silence is golden," says Borba. "Nothing ends a behavior faster than ignoring it."
Children who are six and seven are also thinking analytically, so it's important to their development to continue including them in decision-making. "If they have soccer practice after school, you can ask them, 'What do you need to bring with you?'" offers Dr. Karen Ruskin, author of 9 Key Techniques for Raising Respectful Children. "Ultimately, they feel respected because you've involved them in the decision-making process," she says.